Turkey earthquake one year on: Families of the missing struggle with 'unbearable pain'

More than 100 remain unaccounted for after 7.8-magnitude tremor levelled buildings across southern Turkey

Mother of missing earthquake victim lives in both hope and despair

Mother of missing earthquake victim lives in both hope and despair
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“We are hoping for any news, a tooth, anything that could tell us whether he is alive or dead.”

Selma, 54, is a mother who is inconsolable.

Her son, Samet, who was 24 at the time, was away on business and was spending the night a few kilometres from the family home in Antakya when a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and Syria.

More than 50,000 people were killed as buildings across the region were flattened, including the one in which Samet was staying.

Sometimes, I think he might still be alive and that he hit his head and lost his memory
Selma, whose son Samet is missing

His body has yet to be found and two DNA tests on human remains from the site turned out negative.

“Where is my son? If he died, where is the body?” Selma asks, in tears.

Turkish authorities have not provided an official figure for the number of people missing after the earthquake. Afad, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, did not respond to The National's request for information.

The Association for Solidarity with Earthquake Victims and Lost Relatives (Demak), a group of relatives of missing people, has found that at least 140 people are still unaccounted for, its secretary general Sema Gulec says.

Meanwhile, Selma says: “As time passes, I feel more pain.

"It is unbearable,” she tells The National, sitting in her living room with portraits of her smiling son adorning the white walls.

Her two daughters listen as their mother describes a year filled with an unimaginable blend of grief and painful hope.

Not a bone to bury

“I had a bad feeling, I told him to stay at home the night of the earthquake,” Selma tells.

But Samet insisted on spending the night in the place rented for him by his employer after a late meeting.

In the middle of the night, when the initial tremors gave way to a stronger quake, the first floor of the eight-storey building collapsed, crushing the lower level and casing the entire structure to tilt.

But back in Antakya, his parents' house had sustained only minimal damage and they immediately began desperate efforts to contact Samet.

“His phone was still ringing when we called him,” Selma says.

She says the rescue team sent out by authorities was slow to respond, poorly equipped and reluctant to approach the building, which was deemed to be dangerous.

“When they came on the second day, the rescue team had no equipment.”

In the days that followed, four people were pulled alive from the building after Samet's father, Metin, 53, insisted he had heard voices from beneath the rubble. However, Samet was nowhere to be found.

Eventually, a gas leak sparked a fire, surely burning any possible survivors. Samet's phone stopped ringing.

But the family persevered with their efforts to find out what had happened to Samet. His father returned to the building to collect some bones from the site before it was cleared, hoping to find a match through DNA testing.

After the first test came back negative, they asked for another, which produced the same result.

Nonetheless, the authorities issued a death certificate for Samet in June.

“We don't even have a bone to bury,” Selma laments as she clutches a jumper that belonged to her son.

But this also allows for hope.

“Sometimes, I think he might still be alive and that he hit his head and lost his memory,” she says.

Torn between grief and hope

Selma’s daughters shake their heads slightly as she speaks. They lost hope long ago; for them, it is too late.

“It's been a year,” one of them says.

The family clung for months to the hope of finding Samet alive, putting up missing-person posters with their phone number in the neighbourhood of the collapsed building.

They received responses but none that helped their search.

“One person told me he [Samet] took a bus to the city of Mersin, wearing a black coat. I believed him; I didn't sleep that night. However, we searched for him and couldn't find my son,” Selma says.

“I don't understand why people would do that. They gave us false hope.”

She says another caller also claimed to have seen Samet but this time they did not allow their hopes to be raised: “I didn't have the strength for that any more.”

Most of the calls they have received turned out to be either pranks or people calling to pray over the phone for Samet's return.

The family is now divided over publicising their phone number again.

The chaos in the days after the earthquake, with unidentified victims being hastily buried in mass graves, might explain why some people are still unaccounted for despite the efforts of authorities to collect fingerprints, DNA samples and take photographs to identify them later.

The estimated number of people missing is far lower than after the 1999 earthquake near Istanbul that claimed 18,000 lives, which left 5,840 people unaccounted for, according to official figures.

Ms Gulec, of Demak, is calling for a parliamentary inquiry commission to be set up, and requesting that some graves be reopened for DNA samples to be collected.

“We cannot find our missing loved ones and we are asking for the state's assistance in this regard,” she tells The National.

For Selma, there will be no closure until then.

“We are praying to Allah for a sign,” she says.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 5:44 PM